INDIANAPOLIS — San Francisco 49ers general manager John Lynch said former Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer "blew the doors off" in an interview with his team, which doesn't come as a surprise to anyone who worked with or followed Kizer during his three-year stint in South Bend.
In a more public interview setting on Friday, Kizer said he's taken accountability for Notre Dame's brutal season when it's been brought up in private. That level of personal ownership, and the lack of finger pointing from a guy who certainly would've been within his rights to do so, may resonate as teams examine whether or not to select Kizer in the 2017 NFL Draft.
"A guy my size, my arm talent, my understanding of football, why do you go 4-8?" Kizer said of the prodding he's received in interviews with teams. "I've answered that question as truthfully as I possibly can, and that's I didn't make plays."
Notre Dame's worst season since 2007 wasn't all on Kizer, of course. An awful defense washed out huge stat lines Kizer had in losses to Texas (15/24, 215 yards, 5 TDs, 0 INTs, 1 rushing TD) and Duke (22/37, 381 yards, 2 TDs, 1 INT, 1 rushing TD), for example. Brian Kelly's August decision to play both Kizer and Malik Zaire was an ill-fated one, leaving Kizer to look over his shoulder more than he would've liked while preparing for the season.
"I don't think (the two quarterback approach) held me back, but I do think I spent a little too much time thinking about that rather than thinking about developing the guys around me and developing the trust," Kizer said. "Once again, that 2015 team and the 2016 team were completely different. We had almost completely different roster on offense. I think there should have been a little more time spent with me trying to develop that trust and develop the guys around me to make the plays in those fourth-quarter drives when needed. At times I was kind of looking over my shoulder a little bit too much. That's probably my biggest regret this past season."
Notre Dame's wide receivers were exceedingly young last year, and lone regular upperclassman Torii Hunter Jr. only appeared in eight games due to a pair of injuries. The losses of wide receiver Will Fuller, running back C.J. Prosise and offensive linemen Ronnie Stanley and Nick Martin — all of whom were among the first 90 picks in last year's NFL Draft — created a talent vacuum that Kizer and the Irish weren't able to fill.
Kizer certainly could've pointed to all those mitigating factors, as well as his still-solid stat line (58.7 percent completion rate, 2,925 yards, 26 TDs, 9 INTs, 8 rushing TDs) and try to absolve himself of responsibility for Notre Dame's dismal season. But doing so probably would've been detrimental to his chances of being a high draft pick — blaming others is never good for locker room morale, after all.
"The ball's in my hand every play," Kizer said. "It's my job at Notre Dame to put us in position to win games, to trust
in the guys around me and develop the guys around me to make those plays with me."
But the Bears have, in Indianapolis, made mention of wanting a quarterback to have the ability to make everyone around him better, which is something Kizer didn't do in 2016. General manager Ryan Pace pointed to the success Drew Brees in college — at a perennial underdog of a program — as something the team would like a young quarterback to have in his history.
"You want to see a guy who has elevated his program," Pace, who was part of the New Orleans Saints front office when Brees led the franchise to a Super Bowl win, said. "Again, you just reference places you've been. I know I've talked about this (player) a lot because he had a big impact on me. But I think about Brees when he was at Purdue. And he elevated that program. He took them to the Rose Bowl. I think that means something. I think that's something that we have to pay attention to."
Based on that boat-raising trait, Clemson's Deshaun Watson would seem to be the guy if the Bears decide to target a quarterback in the draft. While Notre Dame (under Kizer) and North Carolina (under Mitchell Trubisky) both took steps back in 2016, Clemson made the only stride possible for that program: Beating Alabama in the College Football Playoff title game a year after losing to the Crimson Tide on the same stage.
Watson elevated Clemson from a perennial good-not-elite team to a title contender in the two years he regularly started for the Tigers. That may resonate more with the Bears than Kizer being a good interview.
Kizer has other tantalizing traits, of course — his Combine measurements of 6-foot-4, 233 pounds and 9 7/8" hand are awfully close to those of Andrew Luck (6-foot-4, 234 pounds, 10" hand). And his 2015 film, during which Notre Dame went 10-3 and was a pair of two-point losses away from going 12-0), can't be thrown out because the Irish plummeted to eight losses a year later.
But what Kizer showed on Friday was accountability, confidence and poise. Are those intangible traits, and his answers to teams in Indianapolis, good enough to warrant interest from teams — like the Bears — picking high in the draft?
"I guess we'll see if they'll come see me at Pro Day," Kizer said.